A Little History of the Australian Labor Party

A Little History of the Australian Labor Party

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Celebrating the 120th anniversary of the Australian Labor Party (ALP)—one of the oldest labor parties in the world and the first to form a government—this short and lively book recounts ALP’s history from its origins during the late 19th century through present day. The book details the party’s numerous successes in winning government at all levels and its policymaking that has transformed lives, as well as demonstrating how the ALP has attracted an extraordinary range of members, parliamentary representatives, leaders, unionists, activists and, indeed, opponents. The ALP has been a central force in Australia throughout the 20th century, and this concise chronicle tells the story of their triumphs and crises, their colorful characters and famed members, and their evolving aspirations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742240626
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Frank Bongiorno is a senior lecturer at the Menzies Center for Australian Studies and Department of History at King’s College London. He is the author of The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition, 1875–1914. Nick Dyrenfurth is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Heroes and Villains: The Rise and Fall of the Early Australian Labor Party, the coeditor of Confusion: The Making of the Australian Two-Party System, and a frequent contributor to the Australian.

Senator John Faulkner is an Australian politician. He has been a Labor member of the Australian Senate since 1989, representing the state of New South Wales.

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A Little History of the Australian Labor Party

By Nick Dyrenfurth, Frank Bongiorno

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-062-6



'To make the world a better place': the great Labor crusade

Billy Hughes didn't expect to have to fight an election in 1895. Having won the waterfront seat of Lang for the Labor Party the previous year, he'd run up debts and was unprepared for another contest so soon after the last. But as a result of the Legislative Council's obstruction of the NSW Free Trade government's reform program, Premier George Reid called an early election.

Hughes's most faithful supporters were also caught off guard. Three of them – giant Irish migrants he first encountered while they were working as wharfies but who now cut sugarcane in the colony's north – made the arduous journey back to the capital as soon as they heard the news. After listening to a Hughes campaign speech, two of the men quietly slipped away; the third approached the Labor parliamentarian.

The men had discussed the matter among themselves, their spokesman told him, and they had agreed to help the cash-strapped Hughes. The Irishman handed over a bankbook that contained their joint savings: £150, which was perhaps six months' wages for three labouring men such as these. 'If you get into Parliament you can pay us back when you're able. If not, it doesn't matter,' he added. Blinded by tears and unable to speak, Hughes pressed the account book back into the hands of the man and ran for his tram. He was re-elected with a whopping majority.

There were conditions in the Australian colonies – democracy, freedom of association, payment of parliamentarians, high levels of unionisation – that made a Labor Party possible. But whatever the veracity of Hughes's account – and Billy's stories were sometimes tall ones – Labor was ultimately created by the likes of these workers: dedicated believers in the cause who, as Hughes himself put it, 'wanted to do something for others less fortunate than themselves, to make the world a better place for men and women and children to live in'. Labor was also made by men such as Hughes, activists who combined driving personal ambition with an equally intense missionary fervour.

'The horny-handed sons of toil': the colonial union movement before 1890

Laborites have tended to value their history and traditions far more than have their political opponents. It has therefore been an enduring source of frustration that there is no birth certificate that would allow even the most careful genealogist to pinpoint the delivery of the Australian Labor Party. One version of Labor mythology has 3000 shearers forming the party under the 'Tree of Knowledge' in the central west Queensland town of Barcaldine, during a bitter pastoral strike in 1891; another, less heroic, counters that the first Labor saplings burst into life from the very different soil of working-class Balmain in Sydney during the same year. Whatever its validity, each story expresses something of the meaning of Labor in Australia: the party of the legendary bushman also belonged to his sturdy city cousin. The Sydney Trades and Labor Council (TLC) officially formed a Labor Party in March 1891 and unionists, socialists and other radical activists soon organised 'Labor Electoral Leagues' (LELs, now called local branches) across the colony. A few months later, the new party's candidates contested their first general election, winning a surprising 35 of the 141 seats on offer in the lower house.

Labor's explosion onto the Australian political scene seemed sudden and was startling to leaders of the existing political groups, but the gestation of Labor-in-politics had been protracted. Following the advent of parliamentary democracy throughout eastern Australia in the 1850s, a long economic boom sparked by the gold rushes and a shortage of labour meant that workers enjoyed good wages and living standards by international standards. Unions representing more highly skilled workers emerged to ensure that their members did even better than ordinary toilers. Their basic strategy was to monopolise skilled labour; employers seeking workers knew that they could call at a union's favourite hotel in order to pick up qualified workers for a job, but also realised that they would have to pay the union rate.

These craft unions therefore served the interests of the 'fair' employer while also helping their members find jobs. Moreover, at a time when the welfare state was non-existent, craft unions also acted as benefit societies that provided workers with a form of insurance. Members contributed to a fund on which they could draw in the event of accident, illness or unemployment, saving them from the indignity of dependence on charity; and in the event of death, a craftsman might avoid the ignominy of a pauper's burial. These men were not merely interested in earning a 'bob'. A fair wage would provide the means for a civilised existence, enabling working men to be something other than brutes or slaves. Beginning with the Melbourne stonemasons in the 1850s, craft unions campaigned successfully for the eight-hour day. In their desire to improve the lives of their members, these early unions foreshadowed the aims of the Labor Party that they would eventually help bring into being.

Australian workers were not only more prosperous than their British counterparts; as a result of the democratic franchise, they had considerably more political power. Working men usually gave their votes to 'liberal' parliamentary candidates, typically middle-class reformers who promised improvements such as the eight-hour day. A few working men were inspired to become parliamentarians. The stonemason and former Scottish Chartist Charles Jardine Don won election to the Victorian lower house in 1859, claiming to represent the 'the horny-handed sons of toil'. The lack of a parliamentary salary, however, was a major problem, and Don had to continue his trade. Soon accusations were flying: he had become the tool of rich patrons, and he had a habit of sleeping in parliament during debate. Whatever the cause, the first experiment in labour representation in Victoria foundered. When other workers were occasionally elected, such as Angus Cameron to the four-member inner-city electorate of West Sydney in 1874, conflict followed. Initially paid by the TLC, this carpenter soon renounced his connection with it, explaining that he 'deprecated class legislation'. This was the kind of comment that many a Labor renegade would advance in the years ahead: that whereas the party represented a particular class, he had been elected by the whole people and would act accordingly. While trades and labour councils emerged in the major cities and towns, in the absence of direct parliamentary representation, union politics was generally limited to staging protest meetings and lobbying governments.

Assisted by improvements in transport and communications during the 1870s, New South Wales's economy began to change from pastoral to industrial; in Victoria, secondary industries such as manufacturing, stimulated by a protective tariff, expanded. The likelihood of becoming one's own boss declined as small workshops were replaced by larger factories owned by a new breed of employers, dubbed 'capitalists'. Poor and often hazardous working conditions became the norm. In response, industry-wide 'new' unions of factory workers, wharfies, miners, and maritime and pastoral labourers formed. Less frequently, female workers such as tailoresses were organised into unions. The most famous example of a 'new' union was the Amalgamated Shearers' Union (later the Australian Workers' Union, or AWU), which was created in 1886 by the former boy miner and pioneering unionist William Guthrie Spence.

New unions extracted significant concessions from employers. Their leaders argued that all toilers shared common interests. As Spence himself said, 'Every tradesman in the colony had an interest in his fellow-tradesmen, however dissimilar their respective callings might be.' Infamously, these unions barred allegedly cheap 'coloured' labour from their ranks, especially the Chinese, and led the campaign to exclude them entirely from the colonies. Nonetheless, their success meant that by 1890 the Australian workforce was the world's most unionised. And if working men could combine in the workplace to better their lives, why not in parliament? Intercolonial Trade Union Congresses (ITUCs) that met during the 1880s discussed that very possibility. The 1884 meeting supported 'direct parliamentary representation' because 'class questions require class knowledge to state them, and class sympathies to fight for them'. Yet no working-class party appeared.

'Monstrous apparitions now stalked brazenly through their sacred corridors': Labor takes the parliamentary road

Unionism nurtured the collective aspirations of workers – what many like to call 'class consciousness' – and rudely awakened bosses. Faced with falling commodity prices, Australian shipowners and pastoralists joined forces, with a view to checking union gains. This resulted in a series of continent-wide conflicts between capital and labour. During the great maritime strike of 1890 – involving some 50,000 workers across Australasia – union solidarity was pitted against 'freedom of contract': employer-speak for excluding unions from bargaining. With the assistance of the colonies' governments, some of whom used armed troops to protect strikebreaking workers known as 'scabs', employers won a decisive victory. They would do so again in the two bitter Queensland shearers' strikes of 1891 and 1894, and in the lockout of miners that shook the outback city of Broken Hill in 1892.

Worse was to come. The world depression of the 1890s fell with particular force upon Australia, where the collapse of the 1880s land boom and dwindling export markets combined with drought and bank failures to wreak havoc. In the cities, more than a third of the workforce was unemployed. Union membership plummeted: in 1890 one in five workers belonged to a union, but by 1896 it was nearer to one in twenty. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs had their wages slashed; many families went hungry and lived in constant fear of being thrown out of their homes. But industrial defeat and widespread suffering also convinced most unionists of the urgent need for a Labor Party to protect the rights and living standards of working Australians.

In New South Wales, Labor contested the 1891 election, winning the parliamentary balance of power between Free Traders and Protectionists. These two political parties had emerged in the mid-1880s. The Free Trade Party favoured the colony's traditional policy of supporting the free entry of goods into New South Wales. The Protectionists challenged them, arguing that a system of tariffs on imported goods – such as had long existed in Victoria – would help develop manufacturing and create jobs. For these stunned opponents of the upstart Labor Party, 'Monstrous apparitions now stalked brazenly through their sacred corridors, from which the vulgar multitude had been hitherto rigidly excluded.'

The impetus behind Labor's formation had not been confined to unionists. Socialism also flowered in the late 1880s. The Australian Socialist League (ASL) first convened in Sydney during May 1887. Soon afterwards, many Australian radicals encountered a book – Looking Backward, a utopian socialist novel by American Edward Bellamy – that laid out for them the kind of society they wanted. Bellamy's story of life in the year 2000, in which capitalism had been peacefully superseded by a combination of advanced technology and social co-operation, attracted a cult following soon after its publication in 1888. Many of those in Australia attracted to this vision were restless, intellectually ambitious young men who spent their working hours as clerks, shopkeepers and journalists. Leading members of the ASL included future Labor MPs Billy Hughes, George Black and William Holman.

The Single Tax League drew on a similar constituency, but it offered an alternative to socialism's call for the replacement of capitalism. Single-taxers were followers of Henry George, another American social prophet and the author of Progress and Poverty. As the cure for society's ills, they advocated the abolition of all taxation except for a tax on the unimproved value of land. George believed that such a measure would eventually end private land ownership. Others, including many socialists, countered that all land should simply be 'nationalised', or taken over by the state on behalf of the people. Early NSW Labor is best seen as a coalition of unionists, socialists, republicans, single-taxers, and, briefly, even some anarchists, a trend replicated in other colonies. The role of socialists and single-taxers in the early Labor Party, and their uneasy relations with union activists, foreshadowed the dynamic of conflict and co-operation between middle-class radicals and unionists that has continued in the ALP to the present day.

In Queensland, where battling unionists and socialist dreamers also rubbed shoulders, the circumstances leading to Labor's formation were especially bitter. Under the auspices of the Australian Labour Federation (ALF), unionists such as Albert Hinchcliffe, along with English-born journalist William Lane and the lone 'Labor' parliamentarian, Thomas Glassey, developed plans to field candidates at the 1893 election. However, savage industrial defeat in the bush during the 1891 shearers' strike spurred earlier action. During the strike unionists had been arrested and jailed – one sentencing judge had even abused the police for not shooting strikers.

Labor's parliamentary battle in Queensland was tough. Some workers were sacked simply for being Labor candidates. However, Labor won a series of by-elections ahead of the 1893 general election, at which it secured 16 out of 72 seats. Under Lane's influence, the party had initially been committed to radical socialist goals, but its platform was gradually watered down: work safety regulations, a state bank and pensions formed the basis of this less grandiose program. By the 1899 election Labor was the second-largest parliamentary party in Queensland. Shortly afterwards, former miner Anderson Dawson formed the world's first Labor government. It lasted just one week before its opponents found themselves in sufficient agreement to consign it to the footnotes of history.

At around the same time the United Labor Party and the Progressive Political League were formed in South Australia and Victoria, colonies with strong liberal pedigrees. Led by John McPherson and E.L. Batchelor, SA Labor coalesced informally with Premier Charles Kingston's Liberals: a state bank, factory regulation and female suffrage were among the fruits of this alliance. In Victoria, the small band of parliamentarians gathered around former bootmaker William Trenwith looked more like a rag-tag army than a political party. Curtailed by both union fidelity to that colony's tradition of liberal protectionism and a cruel rural electoral bias, the party stumbled through the 1890s. Owing to the weakness of unionism, no Tasmanian Labor party existed at all before 1900. Indeed, Tasmania would elect federal Labor MPs before there was even a state party. Co-founded by carpenter George Pearce, Western Australia's Labor Party, initially known as the Progressive Political League (and later as the uniquely structured WA branch of the ALF, which combined industrial and political wings), fared little better.

'The Party is really strengthened by his secession': Labor pains and gains

After electors sent them into parliament, the Labor representatives often found themselves divided. These schisms owed much to Labor's novel conception of party democracy. In theory, working-class voters would select parliamentary candidates, help frame policy and coordinate campaigns through their LELs. Labor MPs were to be delegates implementing the party's platform, which was to be determined collectively at an annual conference, rather than autonomous agents exercising independent judgement. Internal democracy was also deemed necessary in parliament. NSW Labor's first 'caucus' meeting in 1891 (a term that had previously carried pejorative implications) resolved that MPs were required to sign a 'pledge' binding them to majority decisions and hence to voting as a solid bloc. This attempt to import the ethos of union solidarity into parliamentary politics was rapidly put to the test.

Unity of purpose was conspicuously short-lived. In December 1891 NSW Labor split over the question of free trade versus protection, which was then called 'the fiscal issue'. Only James McGowen, a boilermaker, was prepared to put aside his fiscal creed for solidarity's sake. Unions disaffiliated and members left the party in disgust. Aside from the fiscal divide, many Labor MPs argued that the extra-parliamentary wing needed to trust the politicians and not bind them with inflexible rules. One Labor MP, Joseph Cook, added that signing the pledge could compel a man to vote against his life-long beliefs. He soon resigned to join the Free Traders. NSW Labor contested the 1894 election with two groups of candidates: 'Solidarities', who accepted the pledge, and 'Independent' Laborites, who rejected it.


Excerpted from A Little History of the Australian Labor Party by Nick Dyrenfurth, Frank Bongiorno. Copyright © 2011 Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Labor Prime Ministers, Premiers and Chief Ministers,
Foreword by Senator the Hon. John Faulkner,
1 Political Birth: Origins to 1913,
2 Labor Wars: 1914–40,
3 Unity and Disunity: 1941–71,
4 Old Labor or New? 1972–95,
5 Hard Labor: 1996–2011,
Select bibliography,

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